Salvation of individual souls? Or the renewal of all things?

Our destiny is bound up with the whole created order.
— Trystan Owain Hughes

My friend Trystan was kind enough to share my piece about Christianity and the environment last week. If the comments on his Facebook page are any indication, Gnosticism — the idea that everything physical is cursed and only souls matter — is alive and well.

In a response on his blog, Trystan identifies three philosophical and cultural movements behind our tendency to ignore the plight of the natural world. What’s at stake here is a choice between two competing visions of salvation: a narrow (and ultimately unsatisfying), souls-only view on the one hand, and a more holistic, whole-creation vision of redemption on the other.

If we choose the former, then…

We are left with a bleakly individualistic and person-centred theology that is alien to much of the Bible and to the spirituality that Jesus himself practices in the gospels. Salvation, after all, is not merely about us as individuals, as even our destiny is bound up with the entire created order.

Besides, if salvation is just about individual souls, then what did Jesus mean by “the renewal of all things”? And did Paul mean when he said God would “reconcile to himself all things,” including “things on earth”?

In recent years, the phrase “human flourishing” has gained popularity in evangelical circles. (If you’ve ever attended a Q conference, one of the TED-style events put on by Gabe Lyons, then you know what I mean.) “Human flourishing” is much better than the souls-only view of salvation. It affirms that the whole person matters to God. But I want to take it a step further: I believe the biblical vision is not just for human flourishing but for whole-creation flourishing. That’s where our story is heading.

Read Trystan’s post here.

By the way, Trystan has a great book called The Compassion Quest, which lays out in greater detail his vision for an outward-focused, whole-creation faith. It’s one of those books that should be required reading for every Christian.

Serve God, Save the Planet

I just finished reading a book called Serve God, Save the Planet by J. Matthew Sleeth.

Sleeth is a medical doctor. He had a nice home on the New England coast at one point. According to his publisher’s synopsis, Sleeth was living the American dream…

Until he became convinced that the growing number of chronic illnesses he was treating had something to do with the air people were breathing…

The water they were drinking….

The chemicals their bodies were absorbing from a host of sources…

He came to believe the sharp increase he was seeing in cancer among children and young people might have something to do with the environment we live in and the toxins we’re exposed to.

So, following his grandmother’s axiom that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” Sleeth made it his life mission to call others to more responsible stewardship of the environment. Before he began preaching to others, though, he and his family took stock of their own lives and reduced their environmental impact wherever and however possible.

This is not your stereotypical environmentalist book. Sleeth is an evangelical in every sense of the word. His main audience is the church. His passion is to demonstrate for those already dedicated to God how environmental stewardship is an essential element of the Christian life.

Serve God, Save the Planet is one of the most important books I’ve read in the past year. I finished it in about a day. Then I immediately started bugging my wife to read it. (Incidentally, she read it about as quickly as I did and liked it just as much.) This is one of those books that inspired us start contemplating the changes we would make to our own lives as a result of reading it.

What I found most intriguing about Sleeth’s book is that it’s not really about the environment. It’s about life in its entirety. Like any good doctor, Sleeth takes a holistic approach to the issue. He does not stop at the symptoms but presses deeper, until he uncovers the root cause of the problem. In this case, the main culprit is consumerism—our insatiable desire for more and more stuff, even (and often) at the expense of those who have little to begin with. That, Sleeth contends, is the root cause of the environmental quandary we now find ourselves in.

Plenty of parents will find themselves nodding in agreement as Sleeth describes the impact of our society’s TV addition, for example—even if their main concern is not the environmental impact of all that television watching. Televisions are, according to Sleeth, the third largest users of electricity in our homes today. So in addition to converting our minds to mush and exploiting our appetite for the latest high-tech gadget/equity loan/sports car/hair replacement therapy, the amount of TV we watch has a direct impact on our environment.

Sleeth does an excellent job deconstructing common evangelical arguments against the prioritization of environmental issues. He does an even better job building a thoroughly biblical case for environmental stewardship and connecting the environment to other issues, like global poverty (more on that in another post soon).

In short, I can’t recommend Serve God, Save the Planet highly enough, and I can’t praise my former employer, Zondervan, highly enough for publishing the paperback edition (which, not incidentally, was published on 100% recycled paper).

I don’t feel like I can do justice to a book this good using my own words, so I thought I would share some of my favorite excerpts , in the hopes that you’ll pick up a copy and read the whole book for yourself…

On the theological significance of our “dominion” over creation (see Genesis 1:28)…

Dominion [or subduing, depending on your translation] comes from a Hebrew term meaning “higher on the root of a plant.” Dominion does not mean ownership or even unrestricted use. Implied in our dominion is our dependency on everything under us. Cut the root out from under a plant and the fruit above it will perish, despite its superior position.

On the relationship between consumerism and environmentalism…

Being pro-stewardship is not a case of valuing forests more than people; rather, it means valuing human possessions less, and God’s world more.

On the mechanistic way we sometimes view God’s creation…

We say that trees exist to make oxygen, or to give shade, or to be made into paper, and we assign them no further mystery. In other words, nature has purpose and value only insofar as it fulfills our material needs. Our worldview is so mechanistic that we ask questions like, “If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it make any sound?”The Bible answers this question: If a tree stands in the middle of the forest and is never seen by a human, it has meaning to God. The tree is there to glorify God and to give God pleasure. And yes, if the tree topples over one day, it does make a sound and God hears it. This biblical view is at odds with the industrial worldview, but I find it comforting.

A compelling (and disturbing) example of the relationship between environmental degradation and catastrophic “natural” disasters…

In October 2004, the Indian subcontinent was flooded by a deadly tidal wave. Such events happen and will continue to happen, but one of the reasons for the record number of fatalities in this case was not the wave but the fact that all the mangrove trees along the shoreline, which normally holds back the waves, had been cut down to make way for the white sandy beaches so loved by tourists.

On the relationship between the environment, consumerism, and global poverty (which Sleeth has seen firsthand during medical missionary trips to Central America)…

How does refraining from buying a teak chair for your deck constitute mission work? … Tides of rural farmers in Central America, South America, Africa, and Asia are forced to abandon lands they have worked for generations and flood the cities. They flee the mountains because their homes are being destroyed. As the demand for deck chairs, plywood underlayment, disposable chopsticks, and teak furniture grows, the trees in the third world are cut down. Poor families often do not own the land they have worked. They have no say and make no profit from the cutting of trees. Yet cutting down the forests around them changes their world. The topsoil washes away. The streams dry up. The trees God planted to hold the land in place are gone, so when a hurricane comes, the hillsides simply collapse and wash away.

On the amount we spend on health care each year (largely treating symptoms while ignoring the larger problem, Sleeth argues) and what we get for our investment…

Rounded to the nearest hundred dollar, every man, woman, and child spends $5,000 on health care annually. A woman’s life expectancy in the United States today is seventy-nine years. In comparison, Mexico spends about $500 a person on health care, and a woman’s life expectancy there is seventy-six years. That’s $400,000 in total lifetime expenditures for the American versus $38,000 for the average Mexican woman—a bundle of money for only three more years of life. Compared to a vast portion of the world’s people, Mexico has a posh health-care budget. Virtually no country in all of Africa has a budget of $100 per capita for annual health care. Americans spend more on dog and cat health care than Africans spend on human health care.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Don’t miss this book.